We interviewed James Howerton and his sister Margaret on a warm September morning in our sixth grade classroom at Vista de Las Cruces School. Both Jim and Margaret were born in Lompoc, he in 1925, and she in 1919. They spent their childhood years at Hollister Ranch and Las Cruces. The area around our school is as familiar to them as their own backyard, because, in a way, it was!
Living at the ranch was great in those days, although the road was not paved, and in the winter, the cars went as far as they could go, and then people walked in the rest of the way. “We rode horses down to the barn by the adobe,” Jim tells us, “and then walked over to the Las Cruces store to catch the bus to school.”
Margaret explains that her family lived first at the Hollister Ranch up the coast from Gaviota in an adobe house located at Santa Anita Canyon. In 1925, the Santa Barbara earthquake left large cracks in the house, and a snake crawled right through and came inside.
“Mother said, ‘I’m not living here anymore!’, and we moved. Dad (William Frank Howerton, who was known as Bud) was the ranch superintendent and so we got a house at Las Cruces. We lived there from about the time I was five to the time I was seventeen, and then we went down to Tajiguas.”
Both Jim and Margaret attended school at Vista del Mar. At that time, there were only two classrooms, one for grades one through four, and the other for grades five through eight.
“First you went from the little room to the big room,” says Jim, “and then you got closer and closer to the window. By the time you were an eighth grade big shot, you were always watching the ocean.”
The principal, Jim recalls, was a woman named Mrs. Gann. She was one of the most influential people in his life because she was also a dedicated teacher, and she taught him how to read.
“I couldn’t read until the sixth grade,” he explains, “and she gave me books, and I guess I was ready, because over the summer I learned, and I did great.”
When Mrs. Gann was the principal, her salary was only about $1,600 a year, but she got a place to live at the “teacherage.” There was one teacher, Miss Letman, whom Jim describes as having been “a great beauty” — all the boys noticed. And another one of his teachers was Caroline Henning, whose granddaughter, Lisa is in our class today.
Both Jim and Margaret wore bib overalls to school. In the summer, they ran around barefoot. “We gave up our shoes so we wouldn’t wear ’em out,” says Jim, “and we’d get new ones when we started school in the fall.”
There was always a picnic at Refugio Beach on the last day of school, a Vista tradition that continues to the present. One time, Jim reports, a child almost drowned. One of the older boys saved his life.
Summer days were very hot in the canyons, and the Howerton kids enjoyed going to Gaviota Beach when they were done “bailing hay or thrashing beans.” There were cabins there that you could rent for about 50 cents.
And Jim describes another trick for staying cool: he would pick a watermelon and place it beneath a big black fig tree in the yard. Water would drip from the tree onto the melon and evaporate, cooling it off like a refrigerator until it was cold and refreshing to eat. Other times, the kids would go to the hot springs, sit in the warm water for a long time, and see who could most bravely face the chilly feel of the air afterwards.
“It was so clean at the hot springs,” adds Margaret, “before it was a state park — there were picnic tables, but people started to leave trash.”
Winters were wet, and when it rained in the mountains, you didn’t get out for two weeks unless you walked or rode. “One time a semi ran over the pass,” Jim recalls, “and all you could see was the smokestack.”
Christmas was always a rainy time. “One year,” says Margaret, “it rained so hard, we had an oak branch for a Christmas tree.”
Presents were clothes, mostly, but once their brother Bill got a balloon tire bicycle!
“It was raining like the devil,” says Jim, “but we had to try that bike, rain or shine. I remember going beyond the big pepper trees in the wet adobe earth. The mud was so thick, we had to push the bike back home because the wheels wouldn’t turn.”
Toys in those days were homemade affairs. The kids used a corn cob for a football. Sometimes they would take a stick of redwood, whittle a handle, and take turns hitting a tennis ball with it. From these humble beginnings, Jim’s brother Bill became a major league baseball player. He grew up to play for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Kids played baseball, soccer, and a game in which Margaret says “you sat in circle and someone touched you, and you had to catch the person.” (Our students recognized this as Duck Duck, Goose , which they still play.) There was also a game called Red Rover, Red Rover, which involved throwing a ball over the house.
Jim remembers that there was a bull pasture near the school, and whenever someone hit a ball out there, he would be the one to go over the fence and get it. “Everyone thought I was very brave,” he says, “but I knew those bulls were too lazy to chase you. They’d just look at you.”
Growing up in Gaviota was like paradise for kids. Margaret describes her special place — a little spring behind the ranch house upon whose banks grew wild violets and ferns. Jim used to climb an oak tree on a hill in front of the house and lie on its branches. “That tree is probably still there,” he says. (The house was later occupied by Jay Johnson.)
“A lot of times, we’d just fool around by the crick. I found the perfect arrowhead once in one of the washes. It was a beautiful arrowhead. I wish I knew what became of it.”
“And we rode horses, of course. Our horses were named Chico, Chapo, Cholo, and Little Red. Cholo was the best stock horse that ever lived. My father won a hand-tooled saddle on him at the fiesta — it was probably worth about a hundred dollars even then, a couple of thousand today.”
Bud Howerton won a total of seven Fiesta saddles in all. He was the 1974 Fiesta Vaquero, and in 1980 he gained entrance into the Horseman Hall of Fame.
“Before the fiesta, my brother and I would ride in the mountains behind the ranch to get the horse in good shape,” Jim tells us. “We’d ride double. And sometimes we’d play cowboys and Indians and get the horse going as fast as we could, and then we’d fall backwards off him into the hay. If my kids had done that now, I’d kill ’em.”
“It’s funny,” Jim reflects, “how much I hated to get up on school days, but on Saturday, I’d rise at 5 a.m., take the dog and a box of 22-rifle shells, and be gone all day. When I got hungry, I’d just kill something for lunch.”
“We were poor,” adds Margaret, “but we didn’t know it. We lived on wild game — venison, quail, fish.”
“A lot of steelhead used to come up the crick.” says Jim. “They’re now endangered. We’d sit on a boulder and watch them spawn. And on the first day of trout season, they’d close school. It made sense, since no one would be there, anyway.”
“One time I was supposed to pull my little sister Elinor in a wagon, and I tipped the wagon and pushed her out,” Jim recalls. “I got whipped for that. Another time, my mother was going to spank me, so I put a book in my britches. She started hitting, and I started laughing.”
Jim’s best friends were his dog and his brother, but sometimes he would go up the canyon, past the store and play with the Ortega kids. “One time,” he says, “I went over there to get my brother Bill, and Mr. Ortega grabbed me and threw me behind the door. A big billy goat was chasing the kids right through the house. They ran across the bed and jumped out the window! Mr. Ortega finally managed to hit the goat with a washtub and slow him down.”
Peggy and Stan Humphries also lived nearby in the 1930’s, “across the bridge and on the right.” The Humphries’ had two daughters, and whenever they wanted the girls to come home, they would ring a big bell in the backyard. “You could hear that bell ringing up the canyon,” says Jim.
Margaret feels that although this area is still beautiful, it has changed drastically. “You have a nice school,” she says, “and it brings back a lot of memories, but it’s hard now to locate exactly where certain things were.”
She recalls the store and Las Cruces Inn. “Dinner at Las Cruces Inn was a big deal,” Margaret says. (It had been part of the old stagecoach stop — Jim and Margaret’s great-grandfather, incidentally, was the last of the stagecoach drivers.)
And there was a garage run by Eugene Hess, the best mechanic in the area. During one big holiday in the late 1930’s Hess pumped 800 gallons of gas in one day, which broke all records, and was perhaps a harbinger of the eventual growth in traffic and population. “Too many people,” concludes Margaret, “but you can’t stop progress.”
“When we were little,” she continues, “there was no television. The first radio was a big deal. You could barely hear, but we all sat around listening, spellbound.”
“We also listened in on everyone’s telephone conversations! There was a main switch at the store and we were all on the same line.”
Jim and Margaret remember that one time, shortly after 1927, a sister ship of the Spirit of St. Louis made an emergency landing in a Las Cruces bean field. “Mr. Mendez was so upset,” says Jim, “but everybody thought it was very exciting. It didn’t hurt the plane at all, just the beans.”
Jim and Margaret’s father played semi-pro baseball in the 1930’s, and sometimes the family went to his games. Bud Howerton’s semi-pro career had an interesting start. He was sitting in the stands waiting for the game to begin, but the pitcher did not show up. Asked if he would pitch, Bud replied, “Sure, but pay me whatever you pay the regular pitcher.” He went on to pitch a shut out, make a home run, and earn $25. He signed up with “The Buicks” and played ball on Sundays in places like Goleta, Santa Barbara and Ojai.
One of our students ask Mr. Howerton if he has ever met anyone famous. “It depends on what you call famous,” he replies, “I about got run over by President Reagan on Refugio Canyon Road once, if that counts.”
We ask about the cattle operations at Hollister Ranch.
“They drove the cattle from one ranch to another down the highway,” Jim tells us. “Early in the morning, the highway patrol would stop the cars. There was no tunnel then; it was a two-lane road. They’d drive the cattle to Hollister Ranch, or back the other way.”
“There was a ranch on Santa Rosa Island, too,” he continues, “and the cattle would be brought on a barge across the Channel to Santa Anita Ranch (Hollister Ranch). They would anchor the barge just beyond the breakers, and the cows would swim in to the shore. One time, one of them turned around and started heading back to the island. We lost sight of her after awhile. We figured the sharks had a good feed that day.”
The kids ask Jim and Margaret if they have a favorite book. “I don’t have a particular favorite,” replies Jim. “As I told you, I was a late reader, but once I got going, I loved books. Even today, I take a notion to read and sometimes I’ll read half a dozen books in a week, then I won’t for a while. But when I read, I like mystery, action, adventure.”
“I enjoy history,” says Margaret, “particularly local history. I don’t have much of a library because my husband and I live in a motor home. We travel between Oregon and Arizona and I can’t carry too many things.”
Jim’s wife, Barbara Rey Howerton, has brought a carton of photo albums and memorabilia and is herself full of stories. (Interestingly, she says she used to babysit for Gretel Ehrlich, now a well-respected writer.) The students gather round to look at exquisite sepia-toned photographs of ranchers, family members, and local landmarks. There is an old menu from the Gaviota store, where the Trucker’s Special was soup, sandwich, and coffee, for $1.25, and REALLY GREAT chili was 65 cents, served all day and all night. We see a glossy autographed photo of Bill Howerton in his baseball uniform in 1950, newspaper clippings of Bud riding Cholo, and my favorite: Margaret at about thirteen, rifle in hand, looking competent, cool, and content. There is something about her spirit that is tangible even today.
Sometimes in the morning, as I drive to work at Vista de las Cruces, a slant of white light breaks through the mist over the mountains, and our little school simply shines. There is magic here –the oak trees, the creek, the old adobe. It has been changed but not consumed by the rustle of time. And there is a personal dimension, now that Jim and Margaret have shared their perspectives. It isn’t hard to imagine the bell clanging up the canyon and the shouts of barefoot children. There is something familiar in the voice of the wind.
– Cynthia Carbone Ward